July 23, 2024

Paychecks, perks continue for absent Oregon senators amid GOP-led walkout

Senators prepare to meet in the Oregon Senate chamber on Saturday, May 6. The Republican-led walkout entered its 18th day on Tuesday. Oregon Capital Chronicle photo by Ben Botkin
May 30, 2023

State senators continue to collect their pay and a $157 per diem regardless of whether they show up for floor sessions

By Ben Botkin, Oregon Capital Chronicle 

Oregon taxpayers have spent tens of thousands of dollars paying senators who are participating in the GOP-led Senate walkout.

And their salaries and per diem are just part of the cost of the stalled session.

Since May 3, most Republican senators and an Independent senator have boycotted Senate floor sessions, denying the upper chamber its two-thirds majority needed to conduct business. Senators face no financial consequences for failing to show up for floor sessions: They get paid their salary and an in-session per diem nevertheless, according to state law and Senate rules. 

Their annual taxpayer-funded salary is about $35,052, or $2,921 a month, which they receive whether the Legislature is in session or not. 

In session, senators also receive a daily per diem of $157, including on the weekends. That money  is intended to cover costs such as meals, lodging and other miscellaneous expenses. It’s a flat rate and not based on reimbursements.

Each day, those costs add up. 

Take Tuesday, the 18th day that the walkout has halted the Senate. The 10 senators with unexcused absences will be paid $1,570 in per diems and about $960 in salary for that day. That’s $2,530.

Since the boycott began, the total paid to boycotting senators for the days they didn’t didn’t show up for floor sessions: more than $47,000. 

And that doesn’t include the cost of legislative staff who are paid to help senators get their work done on the floor, which includes passing bills. Each member of the Senate also has an allowance of nearly $87,000 for the legislative session for the costs of staff, newsletters and supplies.

Democratic senators and progressive groups have urged senators to return to work, saying the boycott is costing more than money. 

“Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp and Senate Republicans are not only collecting a taxpayer-funded paycheck despite not doing their jobs, they are doing so while blocking progress on the very policies that their constituents need to achieve economic stability — affordable housing, behavioral health supports, protection from wildfire and drought, school funding and more,” Michele Ruffin, executive director of Our Oregon, a progressive nonprofit that advocates for social justice, said in a statement to the Capital Chronicle. “This political gamesmanship is an insult to regular Oregonians everywhere who show up for work every single day and expect their elected senators to do the same.”

In an interview with the Capital Chronicle, Knopp said Republican senators continue to do other work, even as they skip floor sessions. 

“We’re having meetings,” Knopp, R-Bend, said. “We are going to committees. We’re doing our constituent work. We’re being available to people.”

Unlike past walkouts when Republican lawmakers vanished entirely from the state Capitol, senators still show up in Salem. For example, Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, was absent from the floor last Wednesday but attended a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting later that day. On Tuesday, Knopp was absent from the floor but attended a Senate Rules Committee meeting.

Senate Republicans have said they are boycotting floor sessions because bills fail to comply with a state law that requires summaries of legislation to have an eighth-grade reading level. Republicans also have insisted that Democratic senators need to set aside bills they consider too partisan, including House Bill 2002, which expands abortion rights and access to transgender care, and House Bill 2005, which raises the minimum age to purchase most firearms from 18 to 21 years.

“What we would say is in fact that we are doing our job, because we are protecting the people of Oregon for the tyranny of the majority for people who don’t want to follow the law,” Knopp said. “And we’re saying you don’t have a choice because once our lawmakers say, ‘The law doesn’t apply to me, I’ve got the votes, I can do what I want’ —  That is dangerous.”

Meanwhile, Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, had little to say Tuesday — either about senators continuing to get paid or whether the two sides can reach an agreement before the session ends by June 25.

“There’s a long time to go between now and the end of session,” Wagner told reporters after the floor session. “Like I said, conversations are ongoing, and I think everything’s on the table.”

Taxpayers spend millions on the entire legislative session, regardless of whether bills pass or not. The total estimated cost of a long session is nearly $18 million.

Each day, the legislative session costs taxpayers nearly $97,500 on average, which includes salaries for representatives, senators and most support staff, according to legislative records. 

And the Senate alone costs taxpayers nearly $37,000 a day on average during the session. That includes costs such as office staff, communications staffers and other aides who assist legislators.

Though it’s business as usual in the House and Republican senators say they’re working, the protest means that the session could end with millions spent and relatively few bills passed, including the budget. They include bills on housing and homelessness, food assistance, education and mental health and addiction care that thousands of Oregonians need. 

Gov. Tina Kotek is likely to call a special session to pass the budget if lawmakers fail to adopt one.

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

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Bert Etling

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